Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Les Démoniaques (1973)

Jean Rollin’s debut film, Le Viol du Vampire (1967), began life as a short quickly flung together at the behest of a distributor to fill out the allotted theatrical bill with another vampire film, and then expanded it into a feature when the money men and audiences alike were intrigued by the result. In spite of its commercial reasons for existing, Le Viol du Vampire is all but an underground film, a heady whiff of transgressive pleasures offered up with a sense of humour and a large dash of Dadaist art and late-‘60s-style rebelliousness exhibited on many levels of style and story, purposefully grotesque and incoherent, textured like a fevered onanistic dream. In his subsequent films, La Vampire Nue (1969), Le Frissons du Vampires (1970), Requiem pour un Vampire (1971), and La Rose de Fer (1972), Rollin’s rough-hewn artistry erupts in moments of splendiferous strangeness and surrealist virtuosity, both liberated by and just as often held in check by the awkwardness of his cruelly low budgets, and the crude necessity of the sexploitation he injected to make the films commercially viable. Watching Rollin’s works always requires tolerance for sitting through the sometimes arbitrary and prolonged nudie scenes, which coexist uneasily with Rollin’s genuine, wittier eroticist impulses. But his fascination for the potent commingling of the savage and the romantic defined films which, at their best, turn into protean dreamscapes of Sadean imagery and symbolism.

Rollin was still warming up for his greatest achievement, the Proustian fantasia of Lips of Blood (1975), when he made Les Démoniaques, his sixth feature (not counting his forays into straight-up porn), and a relatively straightforward narrative compared to his early odyssean nightmares. That said, it’s one of his most brutal and direct films. Rollin’s obsessive efforts to capture the atmosphere of the French coast are here justified by a story that plays like Rollin’s peculiar twist on Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn (1939), or Fritz Lang’s Moonfleet (1955), whilst anticipating Jacques Rivette’s Noroit (1974) as a freewheeling riff on nautical shenanigans. Les Démoniaques, set sometime around the turn of the 20th century, introduces its cast of villains, a small band of wrecker cutthroats, consisting of the bristling Captain (John Rico), his two semi-loyal helpmates Bosco (Willy Braque) and Paul (Paul Bisciglia), and their sensual, capricious, sadistic squaw Tina (Joëlle Coeur), with a series of portraits that fill us in on their nefarious actions and their relations with one-another, excusing Rollin from any need to interrupt the tale’s subsequent texture for characterisation. This style of introduction proves a miscue, however, as it’s not so much the individual characters and group tensions of the wreckers that preoccupy Les Démoniaques, elements Rollin was scarcely interested in anyway, so much as their embodiment of base, reactive impulse, and animalistic instinct. 

Attracted to the shoreline by floating wreckage of a smashed ship, the criminals discover two tragic maids (Lieva Lone and Patricia Hermenier, filling in, it seems, for Rollin’s regular pairing of doppelganger waifs, the Castel twins) clinging to each-other as they cry for help and stumble out of the surf. True to their natures, the criminals attack, rape, and leave the girls for dead. An uncertain amount of time later, the Captain, drunk in a tavern run by the psychic Louise (Louise Dhour), is beset by visions of the two victims as pale, wraith-like, and blood-smeared, driving him into a panic. Reports come to the gang that the women, who may be actually still alive or the living dead who refuse to be stilled, are lurking in the wrecks ranging the coast. The gang set out to finish the duo off. If the opening seems almost like Rollin’s personal take on Boorman’s Deliverance (1972) mixed with Frank Perry’s Last Summer (1969), the narrative accords roughly with the decade’s fondness for rape-revenge sagas like Last House on the Left (1972) and Lipstick (1976), but deeper within this saga are clear links to Jacobean drama, with the Macbeth-esque nature of the Captain’s growing hysteria in the face of a tormenting guilt that he mistakes for literal supernatural haunting. The supernatural does play a part in Les Démoniaques, but not until after the Captain has whipped himself into frenzy in seeing the gore-spattered angels hovering over his cups, and once the uncanny does enter the story, it does so with typically eccentric Rollin style. 

Rollin’s magic-realist talent for coaxing a powerfully oneiric atmosphere in films that could scarcely afford any artifice, his unique capacity to suggest the ethereal through the firmly tangible and corporeal, and his mining of the complex relationship in the western canon between erotic and macabre imagery, is in constant evidence throughout Les Démoniaques. His touch is especially apparent in sequences set in the ships’ graveyard, and the cavernous ruins in which a satanic force dwells and damaged purity ironically finds safe-harbour. Rollin’s keenness to space and physicality, and his capacity to dream up images that seem torn from some Jungian lode of imagery, pay off in moments of weird majesty and sonorous strangeness: the Captain’s hallucination scene, dogged in the midst of the steamily boisterous tavern by the pale ghouls, complete with a pinch from Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959) as the Captain espies blood dripping into his beer; the two demon-girls marching stark naked through the cavernous spaces of a ruined cathedral, transformed from ravaged innocents to pagan priestesses imbued with the right to unleash incredible powers; the two shipwrecked girls slowly emerging from the black sea, groaning in desperation only to be confronted by human savagery that accords with the violence of the elements and exceeds it; shots of Tina dancing and copulating in ecstatic abandon after the Captain has been draping her in fineries retrieved from the wreck, and driven to new heights of sensual excitement by the spectacle of the girls being ravaged and murdered.

Much of the appeal of Rollin’s films, if one gets into synch with them, is found precisely in their no-budget, bare-boned beauty, their air of having been improvised on the weekend by a cabal of cinematic anarchists. It’s this aspect which feeds the elusive quality they possess, of having been half-remembered and anxiously sketched from the very horizon of liminal awareness, a quality Rollin finally nailed by making the poignant nature of memory itself the lynchpin of Lips of Blood. Here Rollin’s usual 30 franc budget seems here to have been boosted to about 50, as he employs an actual set for the tavern, although he obviously could not afford to keep all the extras needed for these scenes around for long. A lengthy chase scene sees the wreckers hunt the girls high and low in a vibrant piece of location shooting, as the gutted, skeletal hulls of the ships suggest a graveyard for marine mammals, consumed by the rage of the sea and the demimonde scum who wait on the shore to pick over their remains. This is a fairly well-staged action sequence by Rollin’s one-shot standards. The duo elude their enemies within the hulks, battle off Tina, and finally escape, leaving Tina to almost die in the blaze her fellows have started to burn out their prey; Tina is only narrowly rescued by the Captain. As usual in Rollin’s action scenes stuntwork and pyrotechnics are non-existent, but compensated for by the immediacy of the conflict, especially as the two girls, who seem so weak and outmatched, furiously wrestle and defeat the knife-wielding Tina, in the most genuinely ferocious-seeming cat-fight I’ve ever seen in a film, and the flames of the burning wrecks begin to whirl about the cast. The girls manage to flee across a shallow and Tina’s comrades prevent her from following them into the ruined cathedral that abuts the beach, a taboo place for the locals because of the legend that the Devil is imprisoned there.

Rollin’s reductive contemplations of the human animal often boiled all motivations to Freudian essences, and biological essentials of reproduction and consumption, with ironic reflections on contemporary western society as an ever-worsening Faustian bargain trying to buy off mortality, but eaten away by the undimmed natural impulses. Finally, true to the surrealist creed, passion transcends material boundaries and distorts reality. The wreckers all take a very real pleasure in asserting power over others in their crimes, particularly Tina, for whom the need to extinguish the supernal threat of the two haunting women becomes a mad lust. Within the film’s purposefully crude logic, killing and subjugating are the ultimate way of proving one’s own life potency, an aspect which specifically seems to motivate Tina, who charges most recklessly into the fray against the demon-girls, repeatedly declaring her lack of fear, whilst the dead refuse to surrender to oblivion before karmic balance is exacted. The two women discover helpmates, in a duo who live in the ancient ruins: a young woman dressed in garish clown make-up – a bizarre touch that self-references the opening scenes of Requiem pour un Vampire – and an Exorcist (Ben Zimet), perhaps her father, who live as the appointed guardians over the imprisoned Devil. The Exorcist, however, encourages the two girls to release his charge, which only innocents can do, for the sake of their revenge, whilst cautioning them that this Devil is a trickster who is possessed by evil, and all his gifts are two-faced.

Les Démoniaques, like many of Rollin’s films and indeed exemplifying this quality, feels like a folk myth partly misheard and translated into one language and back again. The traditions and peculiar mood of sea shanties and murder ballads are beautifully captured, and specifically invoked as Louise sings one such morbid ditty with the specific aim of torturing the Captain’s already fraying nerves. Louise is a bridge between the worlds of the spirit and the worlds of flesh, empress-chanteuse in her gin-joint who welcomes the two strayed waifs with assurances she’s on their side, and she expires with an axe planted by Tina in her back. Rollin was often mischievous, and equally often careless, with the specific laws of whatever supernatural gimmick he was using (the nature of vampirism, for instance, changes from movie to movie in his canon), and here the Devil (Miletic Zivomir) the girls release proves, far from being a source of infinite malignancy, rather a commanding, handsome necromancer with immediate empathy for the girls’ hunger for justice, beset by distinct limitations on his power over the natural universe. He agrees to give his powers over to the girls to exact their revenge, and they consummate the pact in a languorous scene of rutting as he deflowers one and the other masturbates excitedly whilst watching. One problem Rollin’s films in this phase exhibited – one that hurts Requiem pour un Vampire particularly – was his uncertainty in how to develop story when trying to tell more ordered narratives, after leaving behind the artful gibberish of his first few works. This uncertainty helps make Les Démoniaques both frustrating and also surprising, as the film’s last third, seemingly set up for a familiar, Stephen King-esque vengeance tale, refuses to play out that way. The girls turn up at Louise’s tavern just as the wreckers are forcing her to use her psychic powers to locate their prey: “They’re right there!” Louise informs them as they march in the door, baiting their enemies as one unblinkingly accepts a knife in the chest from Bosco, who retreats in horror that his ever-effective phallic weapon has been rendered impotent.

Rollin’s oeuvre is filled with oddball twists on the familiar rules of supernatural figurations, and openly embraced the surrealist-informed chaos underneath the surface of seemingly rigid concepts. Where in La Viol du Vampire the undead cabal stood in for corrupt regimes to be torn down, that would be totally reversed by the time of Lips of Blood, where the vampires would become symbols of revolutionary sexuality and subversion of a repressive social order. Here the reconceptualization of the Devil figure makes him an empathetic force who is actually neither good nor evil but a repository of cosmic power and justice beyond the familiar limitations of humanity. Magic is another force to be used constructively or clumsily, and one that proves, finally, less powerful than the raw malignancy in the human soul. Imbued with Satanic powers, the two demon-girls almost manage to destroy Tina, utilising telekinetic force to topple statuettes in the church, one (of Jesus, naturellement) momentarily pinning her down. But they fail in their efforts, because their quarries are still powerful in their relentless hate and sadism: whereas in most horror films good mortal characters struggle to overcome the seemingly limitless force of the supernatural with bravery and determination, here the supernatural is a positive force of mystery and sublime intent rendered meek by the sheer unrelenting force of the flesh, and the intended targets are ruthless bastards. The girls are also defeated by their own remnant compassion, as the wreckers turn their fury on their helpmates the Exorcist and the Clown, who are mauled and left dying. The girls forlornly give the Devil’s powers back to him so he can save their lives, at, he warns them the inevitable cost of their own.

Les Démoniaques, thus, finally becomes a peculiarly blasphemous reconfiguration of the Christ myth as a pseudo-feminist, psycho-sexual passion play, as the wreckers, capturing the now-defenceless girls, crucify them by tying them to pieces of wreckage, with Tina joyfully egging on the men to rape the girls again, seeming to be a complete triumph for rapacious amorality. But this is finally undone as the same force of termite-like guilt that started the wreckers’ hunt sends the Captain into a fit of lunacy: he strangles Tina and wastes Bosco, before drowning in a desperate effort to save the tethered girls. The demon-girls thus die as Christ figures, ruined innocents sacrificed for the world’s sins who nonetheless inspire, at last, a maddened but powerful moral reaction. This is one of the purest figurations of Rollin’s ingrained streak of Catholic fetishism, an assault on the traditions of religious art as well as an evocation of them, as well as one of his darkest, most cruelly lustrous inversions on standard moral meaning. The delirious conclusion of Les Démoniaques stands as one of Rollin’s greatest achievements, in a career notable for its prolixity of great climaxes. Rollin’s constant collaborator at the time, Jean-Jacques Renon, provides the grainy yet expressive cinematography that gave Rollin’s films their air of rough, low-fi yet poetic beauty, and whereas Rollin’s works often featured weak and deliberately flat performances from amateur actors, here Rico is effective, and Coeur is something else. Like Brigitte Lahaie, who would feature in Fascination (1979) and other mid-period Rollin films, Couer came to his horror work first from one of the hardcore movies he made in between his genre efforts, and like Lahaie goes off like a firecracker in playing one of his merrily evocations of unruly femininity, taunting her masculine partners for whom she serves theoretically as shared love object but in fact commands and excels them all as an unregenerate barbarian, whether pleasuring herself on the seaside rocks in imperial delight in using the men as her phallic proxies in savaging the girls, and unleashing unhinged contempt on all the neutered, timid humans around her, feeling all the fury and pleasure of heaven and hell through her own sex and violence-fed nervous system.


Sam Juliano said...

"Rollin’s reductive contemplations of the human animal often boiled all motivations to Freudian essences, and biological essentials of reproduction and consumption, with ironic reflections on contemporary western society as an ever-worsening Faustian bargain trying to buy off mortality, but eaten away by the undimmed natural impulses. Finally, true to the surrealist creed, passion transcends material boundaries and distorts reality."

Rollins is an original I will say that Rod! True I have only seen LIPS OF BLOOD, THE GRAPES OF DEATH and FASCINATION to this point, but even in that limited survey I have seen that "surrelist virtuosity" you speak of here, and the eerie undercurrent you imply. Yes, there is no question that the rampant sexploitation in his films is a required injection for commercial concerns, but even in those obligatory passages you still see the director's originality and unique sensibilities at work. One could pose the names of Franco and Fulci as adherents of this kind of "vision" but aside from a few films from each that warrant some serious discussion, they are hacks next to Rollin. I love that posing of the DELIVERANCE/LAST SUMMER hybrid here, and applaud you for the thematic and scholarly heft you employ in the copied passage above and indeed for this entire remarkable essay. Quite a triumphant return to THIS ISLAND ROD! Your great review is a passionate call for further investigation.

Roderick Heath said...

Hi Sam.

Just recently I've been on a major Rollin kick, taking in all of his early features up until Lips of Blood, which I've had for years. It's been a fascinating experience expanding my viewing of this director I feel a particular affinity with - I especially loved the improv theatre lunacy of La Viol du Vampire and the utter strangeness of La Frisson du Vampires, and this one. I was less impressed by the usually well-thought-of Requiem Pour un Vampire, which has a great start but rambles on. But all in all it adds up to an inimitable oeuvre. I'm not so quick to dismiss Franco - I haven't really seen enough Fulci to make judgements on his total career - although he certainly did have a much more uneven and extended career, but Franco’s best, like Venus In Furs and Vampyros Lesbos, are on a par. In any event, I’d watch anything by any of these guys before another Michael Bay movie. And it feels good to have this site back on its feet, if not galloping yet.